ABU DHABI // If Brazil is the spiritual home of football and the Estadio Maracana is its central place of worship, then Edson Arantes do Nascimento is the sporting equivalent of the stony-faced statue that sits above Rio de Janeiro, looking over the city. In a country captivated by “jogo bonito”, Pele is as close to a son of god as one can be.
Growing up in Scotland, I never had the opportunity to watch a Brazilian league match on television, but it is impossible to have a love for the beautiful game and not be familiar with some of the South American country’s players and clubs.
I recall a family friend returning from work off the coast of South America once and bringing with him two football shirts of local Brazilian teams.
My brother immediately opted for the green-and-claret vertical stripes of Fluminense, which left me with the red-and-black hoops of Flamengo.
I recall being quite pleased with his choice, because it allowed me to pretend to be Romario, who I was vaguely aware had moved there from Barcelona a year after winning the World Cup in 1994.
In truth, though, I would have preferred another shirt; a shirt belonging to the only Brazilian team I had any real knowledge of.
A shirt belonging to the home club of the original Special One. I would have preferred the No 10 jersey of the great Pele’s Santos Futebol Clube.
Until last summer, that desire remained unfulfilled, but on June 12 (Brazilian Valentine’s Day), my girlfriend drove for a couple of hours through sporadic rain to the port city of Santos so that we (OK, I) could watch the home team play Atletico Mineiro. Who said romance is dead?
What greeted us was a modest stadium with a capacity of a little under 17,000. As well as a small museum that was regrettably closed by the time we negotiated the Sao Paulo traffic, there was also a vast club shop.
Eighteen years after becoming an involuntary Flamenguista, I was finally the proud owner of a Santos shirt.
The stadium, Vila Belmiro, was maybe only a quarter full for the match, as the majority of the more recognisable players were with the Brazilian national team as part of their country’s Confederations Cup preparations. Ronaldinho and Gilberto Silva featured for the visitors.
During a brief chat with a Santos official during the half-time break, a player by the name of Gabriel was mentioned.
Only 16, he was already being tipped to fill the boots of the recently departed Neymar. He had made a few substitute appearances, and while he had yet to score, was expected to feature increasingly as the season progressed.
“He is the new one; the one we have the highest hopes for,” the club’s director of communications, Arnaldo Hase, said.
With Santos holding on to a narrow win, Gabriel never got off the bench that night, but he has enjoyed several cameos since and in August scored his first goal in a 1-0 win over Gremio in the Brazilian Cup.
GloboEsporte.com reported that while Neymar had taken 149 minutes to net his first professional goal, “Gabigol” needed just 124. And he was younger, too.
Gabriel followed that goal with another, against Vitoria, a few days later. Betinho, the Santos scout credited with discovering both Neymar and Robinho, said his latest discovery “can be the idol of a generation”.
He already has a £50m (Dh297.3m) release clause written into his contract.
Over the next few weeks, the UAE offers a platform for Gabriel to leave his biggest mark yet.
The forward celebrated his 17th birthday on August 30 and has this month swapped the famous Santos strip for the even more renowned canary yellow of Brazil.
Having impressed already for his country at the U15 level, he is in the Emirates as the focal point of his country’s strike force as they look to win the Fifa Under 17 World Cup.
While he did not feature in Thursday’s 6-1 opening win against Slovakia, he will hope to see action tonight when the Brazilians take on the UAE in Abu Dhabi.
It was at the same tournament in Nigeria in 2009 where Neymar announced himself, providing the highlight of his side’s opening game with Japan, a fine solo effort that showed creativity and composure in equal measure.
His performances that month for the Selecao, coupled with early showings for Santos, saw him being touted for possible inclusion in Dunga’s 2010 World Cup squad.
How Gabigol performs with similar pressures and expectations on his shoulders will prove fascinating, even if a call-up for next summer’s showpiece is unrealistic.
Expectations are high, but that is inevitable when you are a young striker playing for the club responsible for producing not only Neymar, but also the best forward the world has ever seen.
And in a kit, that resonates around the world.
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